To skin a pair of trousers.

For those of you who are interested in that sort of thing my notebook of choice is the Black n’ Red C66655. A6, casebound and ruled, the new covers are shiny as black satin sheets, the spines a suspender-lace-red . One lasts me from 6-8 weeks as a rule, well within the pocket life of its binding, and a quarter the cost of ones designed to withstand six months in the wilderness.

Black n’ Reds are rather unpretentious, workmanlike notebooks, not a quality shared by all their contemporaries. Believe it or not, some notebooks seem designed purely to flatter the egos of their owners, but then we all need a boost from time to time, especially if we aspire to be writers!

I need the broad bright spine of the Black n’ Red because I number my notebooks. I used to index them too, numbering the items rather than the pages, and listing them on the inside covers and endpapers. Of course that was in the forlorn hope that one day I’d trawl through the back copies looking for unpolished gems. I planned to set aside a day for that, but as I haven’t yet, and as I’m now on notebook 65, I’d need more like a week, or maybe a month!

As each item passes from notebook to computer (a stage in that fraught journey to being printed off, submitted, and preserved for posterity by publication), I strike out the original in the book. Sometimes several versions sit side by side in the notebook, especially with poems. The computer gathers them into re-organised files…. poems into ones covering several notebooks, fiction into annual folders, essays into catch-alls or, if a subject really gets a grip on me, into subject folders.

I have an emergency notebook too – one of those small square Paperblanks. Too fancy for the working day, and an unsightly bulge in the trousers, but useful if the Black n’Red has to be left at home. Every tenth notebook I splash out on something more decorative – but I still deface the spines. You have to keep these things in order.

When I was young I knew an old lady, the grandmother of a school-friend, who spent her last years, dressed as an entrant to a Queen Victoria look alike competition, sitting in a large armchair in a small parlour, reading by magnifying glass, the tiny, spidery writing in her tiny, square, black leather bound diaries of what I assume was her own past.

Something to look forward to, then.

One of the side effects of the creative writing course/workshops industry is a tendency to collapse the process of writing and re-writing into a smaller and smaller space. We set an exercise at the beginning of a session, and assess a purportedly finished work at the end. We have our students prepare and submit whole portfolios of work for assessment within the twelve or so weeks of a semester. If you’re a poet you’ll be encouraged to write a poem a day – the artistic equivalent of a daily paper, but not big enough to hold a decent portion of fish and chips on the morrow. It fits in with the professional, production line concept of writing – the fodder for publication. Yet, if creative writing were a true production-line product we would be accused of dumping it, at a loss, on a saturated market.

It is a good idea, probably, to write something every day; and it may be a better one, to have days when you write nothing – however difficult that may turn out to be – and keeping a notebook, scruffy or posh, cheap or expensive, will come in useful then. So will the opportunity to look back over a couple of years at what you were writing back then; over what you didn’t finish, or weren’t happy with; over what you thought was pretty damned good! You’ll find that changed perspectives change appearances, and not always for the bad. Stories you couldn’t seem to get a handle on will offer the chance of a re-write; endings will present themselves to fragments that had seemed to be going nowhere. Good stories may seem better. Some that you liked you will like even more. Some you will see the flaws in. Some will simply mystify you.

Unlike my friend’s grandmother, you don’t have to wait until you’re old, nor do you have to dress up in old fashioned gear – though that might be rather fun – but re-reading your old notebooks may be one of the most productive projects, as a writer, that you ever undertake.

I’ve still got my 64 (and counting) to go through – but no month set aside as yet to do it; a case of do as I say, not as I do, I expect.

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